From the author: Sometimes outer space can become a small place for astronauts and cats.
SMALL MAMMAL IN SPACE
When turbulence tossed the ship from side to side, Astronaut Perkins was thrown into a wall. He found himself lying in the doorway, nearly crushed by boxes. His head ached and he had difficulty focusing his eyes. For a moment he felt disoriented. Then he heard a loud meow.
“Hendricks!” he cried. He hoped his cat wasn’t trapped. He had gotten trapped so many times before. He knew that Hendricks had more than nine lives. He had already used up fifteen of them.
The mournful meow filled the ship. He wished he hadn’t chosen a cat with post traumatic stress.
Why hadn’t the Space Ministry vetted the cat? Now it was too late. He loved Hendricks. He was the cutest one he had seen, white with gray spots. Oriental short hair. In a cage by himself. They were buddies. They’d been in space together for six months on the way to Alpha Centauri.
Perkins rubbed his head and stood up. The turbulence had stopped. He staggered in the direction of meow, thinking that Hendricks must have hidden in his favorite spot. He opened the cargo hold and saw no Hendricks. This time the cat had found a new hiding place.
He wished he had kept a neat ship. But every day, the Centauri got messier. He couldn’t find the simplest items. His rada toothbrush had missing for two weeks. So he had to brush his teeth with his fingers. He lost his nimba shaver three months ago and now had a full beard.
Through all these changes he had grown closer to Hendricks. He was certain the cat understood everything he said to him. He meowed in short phrases that mimicked English.
“Hendricks,” said Perkins, after a moment of silence. He heard the mournful meow again. He hoped Hendricks wasn’t in trouble. He might not have many lives left.
Perkins walked on his hands and legs through the narrow corridor at the base of the bridge, still calling Hendricks name. He stopped in front of the highest overhead compartment and called Hendricks’ name again.
He had found him.
“Hendricks, it’s me, Nathan Perkins. Don’t be afraid. You’ll be safe.”
Another mournful meow came out of the compartment.
“Hendricks, I’m going to open the compartment and get you out. Don’t be afraid.”
Unfortunately, when Hendricks had one of his PTSD episodes, he couldn’t remember who Perkins was. He couldn’t remember who anyone was or where he was. At those moment, Perkins got scratched. He had gotten a scratch that had just missed his eye and another that dug into his fingers so deeply he had difficulty typing while it was healing.
Perkins thought of it as he opened the compartment slowly. It squeaked as he inched it open. All the time he reassured Hendricks that he was indeed who he said he was, so the cat might have some memory of him.
“Hendricks,” said Perkins as he opened the compartment fully and felt a furry being streak past him.
“Hendricks!” he cried and knew then that the cat hadn’t been injured.
He followed him back on the bridge and finally cornered Hendricks by the science station. He hoped the cat wouldn’t jump on it. The last time he did it, he had changed the results of an entomological study Perkins had been working on for three months.
The cat stood there staring at him. He didn’t know what to make of it. One day Hendricks had gotten eye contact, better eye contact than most girls Perkins had dated. Hendricks stared at him with his hazel eyes.
“Come here, Hendricks. Don’t you know who I am?” Perkins waited for the cat to respond. Instead he just stared at him. He wouldn’t dare telling Hendricks where he actually was. The ship was made to look like earth with plants growing everywhere and sunlight beaming down on them.
“Meow,” said Hendricks in a mournful way. Perkins heard the bit of a raspy hair lip that Hendricks had from birth. He was a distinctive cat in all ways.
“You’re safe here, I promise. We’re in this together,” said Perkins, knowing saying that wouldn’t convince the cat.
Against his better judgment he picked the cat up. Fortunately Hendricks was calm and still mournful. He bleated pleading cries, as though he was explaining what was going on. Perkins thought for sure the cat was trying to communicate with him.
He petted Hendricks’ soft fur. He had given him the healthiest mixture to eat while in space. Fortunately he radiated health and vibrancy unlike most cats his age, ten years old.
He felt Hendricks purr and knew that somehow he had reassured him. It was a difficult journey to Alpha Centauri even at warp speed. They didn’t know what they’d find there. They didn’t know whether they’d be able to return to Earth, though they were programmed to do it on this ship. The Centauri was the apex of technology, created from contributions of elite scientists from the planet. Perkins had been chosen as the one who could achieve the mission.
And he had chosen Hendricks. He wanted Hendricks to understand it. And somehow he felt Hendricks did.
“Good boy,” said Perkins, petting Hendricks intensely. “We hit a rough area. Now we’re fine. We’re only two years away from Centauri. I’m sure we’ll make it in one piece.” He kissed Hendricks on the head. He wasn’t certain when he started doing it. Maybe a month ago or so. His Aunt Ellie wouldn’t have approved of it. She owned a farm and hated animals. She thought cats were just extras that should be destroyed.
Perkins didn’t think that much of Aunt Ellie. She had reprimanded him when he was just six years old for kissing a cat. Perkins hated her for that. He was humiliated. Then his mother had punished him, slapping him on the cheek.
“Cats are dirty,” said his mother. Her beady eyes took him apart. That was how Perkins remembered her. He was pleased that his father divorced her.
‘They aren’t dirty,” said Perkins.
“Yes they are,” replied his mother, taking the cat from him.
Perkins remembered how he sobbed. His unhappiness ignored by everyone except his father. He supposed that he must have a bit of PTSD like Hendricks. Maybe that was why he had chosen the cat.
He pushed the incident out of his mind, as he watched Hendricks slurp up his milk. He bent down and petted him, watching Hendricks’ image on the screen. The cat was a treasure.
Perkins was certain that Hendricks responded to him with a gleeful look. Though cats couldn’t smile, Perkins was certain that Hendricks was smiling at him.
Fortunately space was calm for the next month forward. They passed by a slew of solar systems. Many of them, Perkins supposed, most have life. But his ship wasn’t stopping at any of them they were on their way to their destination determined by the Space Council.
Hendricks had become more relaxed, not knowing where he really was or why he was in this spaceship. Perkins knew it was his job to make the feline comfortable the way there. If he made Hendricks comfortable, he’d be comfortable too.
Perkins was busy working on another science study. This one was much more difficult than his first two. He had to gather data from sensors outside the ship. More often than not he didn’t get the data he needed and was forced to go outside and get it.
“I’ll only be outside for an hour,” he told Hendricks.
The cat stared at him with his big eyes and gave a mournful cry. He hadn’t done that the last time Perkins had gone outside. Of course nothing bad had happened to him other times. The last time Perkins had difficulty getting back to the ship after one suspension rope had broken. Through the porthole, he watched Hendricks wait for him inside growing more and more upset. He thought the cat would go outside to help him.
Finally, when he got inside he picked up Hendricks and hugged him. He had never before received such a response from a feline. He stared at Hendricks hazel eyes and knew he loved the cat as much as he could love any human being.
“Ha.ha… ” said Hendricks, creating a new sound Perkins had never heard before.
Perkins knew then that Hendricks was trying to communicate. He was beginning to learn English.
Gathering science data had shown Perkins that even microorganisms had intelligence, though they didn’t have language.
Though limited by his physical vocal cords, Hendricks had the elementary beginnings of language. He was intelligent, though he couldn’t communicate his thoughts. He was emotional, above all else, having no cerebral cortex.
Perkins knew that any species could soar above all their specifications and achieve more. That’s what he thought Hendricks was doing. He wanted to make Hendricks his study but the Space Science Council wouldn’t let him. They were inbred and narrow minded. Cats were cats they said. They had been studied on earth for centuries and always been used for experiments. The Space Council didn’t believe they were more than that.
“Hendricks,” said Perkins, holding him in his arms. “I’ll convince them. Just see. I’ll do it somehow.”
He listened to Hendricks’ purr and stare at him with his warm eyes. Perkins had never felt that much love from his own family.
“We’ll be fine,” said Perkins.
At that moment the communications line opened up and a logo appeared on the screen, the logo of the Space Science Council, a tree with an eagle perched in it.
“Yes,” said Perkins. He thought to himself what do you want now?
“Perkins,” said the talking logo. No one knew who was talking to anyone else these days in the 25th century. The Science Council always appeared as a logo, not one individual.
“You’ll be encountering the Micralandos species soon. They’ll be contacting your ship in one hour.”
“Yes,” said Perkins. He knew he must always appear active and aware.
“You must jettison Hendricks before they see you.”
“What’re you talking about?” said Perkins, trying to control his anger.
“They despise furry small mammals,” said the logo.
“How do you know that?”
"We’ve been studying their culture from their radio waves for a century,” replied the logo.
”Sure,” replied Perkins, shutting off the communications terminal. Those bastards, he thought, corporate monsters. They can’t control me from twenty light years away.
The communications terminal turned back on.
“Remember what we said. You must obey,” said the logo. “Or consequences are grave for you. You and Hendricks will be terminated.”
Perkins smiled. “Of course, I’ll obey,” and turned off the communications terminal.
He picked up Hendricks and hugged him. He would have never been able to survive this voyage without him. If he died, they’d both die together.
As the hours passed he ignored the communications terminal which would turn itself on again. The logo would reappear reiterating the threat. He was sick of it. Hearing it over and over again.
He felt like jettisoning himself into space.
He tried to reassure Hendricks, who was upset by the relentless transmissions. He started acting out again, hiding in different compartments in the ship. Perkins found him every time.
Hendricks gave a mournful meow. Perkins petted him until he purred, “Those crazies at the Space Science Council don’t know what they’re talking about. We’re buddies for life.”
Perkins looked into his cat’s eyes. They were wide, healthy. He could see flecks of gray in the hazel. He was a beautiful feline, unlike no other. He loved Hendricks as much as his family. He petted the cat until he purred, reassured falsely by his space mate. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t jettison his best friend into the abyss of space, the endless void. He didn’t care what the Space Council did to him.
He smiled to himself. He had a good idea: he would hide Hendricks from the sensors so they would think he had followed their instructions. He put Hendricks down and got some silver foil from the drawer. This would shield him from the sensors. He lifted it out of the drawer and showed it to Hendricks.
"Meow,” said Hendricks.
“Hendricks, my boy, this will protect you,” said Perkins. “We’ll be safe.”
Before Perkins had said another word, the cat was gone. Perkins folded the sheet and put it on the table.
“Hendricks, where are you?”
He searched in the cat’s usual hiding places, compartments, tiny nooks that even the engineers who built the Centauri didn’t know about. No Hendricks.
Perkins heard him purring and followed the sound to the smallest space in the back of the ship. Hendricks had never hidden in there before. He wondered how the cat had discovered it. The compartment was too stuffed with things to hold a cat, Perkins thought. Somehow Hendricks had squeezed in. Perkins had left the door open by mistake, ignoring it after the turbulence that had rocked the ship.
While he spoke to Hendricks in a reassuring tone, he grabbed the silver fabric from the table and held it in his hand.
“Hendricks, don‘t be afraid.”
He heard the mournful meow again and approached the compartment slowly. Stepping quietly so Hendricks wouldn’t hear him.
“You’ll be safe, I promise,” said Perkins.
As he said it he bent over and placed the silver fabric over his fur and shut the compartment.
Hendricks shrieked, a cry unlike Perkins had heard before, except when they had passed through the asteroid belt and the hull of the ship was struck by rocks.
A moment later, the communications screen came on again with the Space Science Council logo.
“We’re glad you jettisoned your cat,” said the logo. “Expected arrival of the aliens is two minutes.”
Perkins tried to say a word. But as he opened his mouth the logo shut off.
Some good they were, the Space Council. He was glad he left Earth. There was no communication between people in that world.
He was pleased he had saved Hendricks. His magnificent cat. He didn’t care if the Macralandos killed him. It was worth it.
Suddenly the communications console came alive. It was an audio communication from the species. Arrival expected in thirty seconds.
Perkins pressed the button allowing them to come aboard.
He waited on the bridge for their materialization. He opened his eyes to something he couldn’t believe.
“Astronaut Perkins,” said the alien. “We are pleased to make your acquaintance. However, we’re concerned about your treatment of Hendricks.”
Perkins watched the Macralandos captain materialize before his eyes. He was indeed a feline. He was white like Hendricks. Probably an Oriental shorthair. He had hazel eyes too. He wore a simple suit that left lots of room for white fur with gray spots.
“Hendricks and I are the best of friends.”
The captain opened the compartment and said, “Why have you done this to him? Put him in a cage?”
“I didn’t. I mean I wouldn’t. Just ask Hendricks. We’re best buddies on this flight.”
He watched Macralandos captain pick up his cat, who was now purring in the arms of another feline.
Perkins looked at Hendricks and pleaded, “Tell them the truth. I was saving you from being jettisoned into space.” He stared at the captain. “The Space Council ordered me to do it. I wouldn’t.”
Hendricks turned up his pink nose. And Perkins began to become worried about his fate.
“Did he harm you?” asked the Macralandos captain.
Perkins watched his cat hesitate for a moment. After a few minutes, he heard Hendricks speak for the first time.
“He didn’t harm me,” replied Hendricks to the captain. “He was kind to me, protecting me.”
Perkins was proud of Hendricks. He knew he could speak. No one had translated it for him. The Space Council, after all, didn’t have one feline member.
The captain looked at Perkins and said, “Now both of you have safe haven on my planet. You can live there without fear of returning to earth or the Space Council.”
Perkins smiled. He petted Hendricks, knowing how a cat would be true, if you were true to them, unlike humans. He was pleased to go to Macralandos and would consider having a fur graft.
Copyright (C) Kathleen Vyn
This story originally appeared in Cat Magazine.